South Wales Evening Post measles campaign was hard hitting but reflected parents' concerns at the time says Editor, Jonathan Roberts
As the measles outbreak has escalated over the last few weeks, there have been suggestions that media coverage, back in 1997, of a potential link between the MMR jab and autism has contributed to a significantly lower uptake of the vaccine, and is a major contributory factor to the disease's rapid spread across Swansea.
Many of our readers will be aware that at the time the Evening Post ran a high profile campaign on this issue, which has now led some experts to suggest this newspaper is at least in part responsible for the lower uptake of the MMR, and therefore a contributor to the scale of the outbreak in the city today.
I have been asked by several media outlets for a comment. I have declined to speak publicly until now, other than to say that the campaign pre-dates today's newsroom, and it would be impossible to offer a comment that accurately reflects the aims of that particular campaign, or indeed the impact it may or may not have had on opinion locally.
Today, as more measles cases emerge, and concerned parents queue in their hundreds to try to protect their children, I have decided it is time we spoke to our readers directly.
There are now 581 young people and children in the Swansea area suffering with measles. And before I say anything else about an outbreak which has affected so many families, it is important they know that the welfare of their children is uppermost in our thoughts.
And I do not say that as the editor of this newspaper, but as a dad with a three-year-old child who seems to spend every moment worrying about her welfare.
As parents, nothing is more important than our children and it is that natural emotion, of protection, that lies at the heart of this issue.
It is dangerous to judge this campaign outside of its time. The evidence of a link between the MMR and autism has since been discredited, but in 1997 that was not the case. There was genuine concern, even fear, among parents that they could be putting their children at risk.
The Evening Post highlighted those concerns in its campaign. It gave those with worries about MMR a voice and, in keeping with the tradition of this paper, that voice was balanced by the views of those who supported the vaccine. And we weren't alone. This was a nationwide concern that generated headlines across the country. To put our coverage in context, a paper was published in the medical journal The Lancet in 1998 which presented evidence that autism disorders could be caused by the vaccine. This was later retracted, but not until 2010. It is clear that there were genuine concerns in the mid-90s about MMR and the Post gave them full and responsible coverage.
Our campaign reflected the concerns of parents, it told their stories, it called for answers, it wanted clarity.
What it did not do was tell people to avoid immunising their children against measles - or mumps, or rubella.
It actually warned parents they had to ensure their children were protected. It said measles was not a disease to be taken lightly.
What it did do was suggest people considered the options, sought medical advice, looked at the single jab alternative.
And when health experts came out and defended the MMR jab as safe, the paper printed those stories too.
That is not to say I disagree with the view that the campaign was hard-hitting. It was. It gave a front page voice to anxious parents who believed the MMR may have given their children autism.
Looking at the campaign with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to be critical. To judge it honestly and fairly, one has to consider the fear which existed at the time, the fact that medical experts were publicly expressing concerns about the vaccine and the duty of this the paper to reflect public opinion.
What I can say with absolute certainty is that the Evening Post has always, and will continue to, put the interests of our city and our readers first. It would never seek to mislead. In some quarters, editors may be judged on their ability to sell newspapers, but in the regional newspaper world, we are very much a part of the communities we serve, and have an obligation to act responsibly.
Which is why today, and over the weeks in which the measles outbreak has developed, we have taken the lead in highlighting the facts and providing the key information parents need to best protect their children.
Evening Post Editor Jonathan Roberts will be hosting a live webchat tomorrow at 2.30pm on this site.